Piu Marie Eatwell, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse (2015)
The best narrative nonfiction, for me, is as fluidly told and as riveting as fiction while still being solidly grounded in fact. In the Kingdom of Ice was one book that reached this ideal, a perfect balance of true-to-life detail and narrative skill. Less successful efforts tend toward either clunky, disjointed assemblage of facts, or frantic speculation in an effort to fill in the blanks.
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse doesn’t quite reach the summit of great nonfiction in this regard, but it’s still an absorbing story with a factually respectable basis. In 1897, a woman surfaced with the wild claim that her father-in-law, a London merchant, had actually been the fifth Duke of Portland, an ultra-rich, ultra-eccentric aristocrat who was leading a double life. This meant that her son was the the heir of the childless duke…and so a frenzied legal battle commenced, to be played out over decades on a very public stage. Corruption, madness, fortune-hunting, identify theft: it’s all here, in a plot worthy of a Wilkie Collins novel.
In fact, all the ingredients for a fantastic stranger-than-fiction narrative are present, but I was left just slightly unsatisfied. The large cast of characters (identified and listed as such in the front matter) is hard to keep track of, as many don’t have enough personality to be memorable. The device of announcing some startling turn of events but then abandoning it for another narrative thread was also confusing, and some obvious questions were not addressed for too long — where was the evidence of the movements of the duke and his supposed alter ego, for example? I was also a bit skeptical of the scenes that go into certain characters’ inner thoughts and experiences without apparent basis in diary or letters, though these are unobtrusive and plausible enough.
Still, I don’t want to dissuade you from meeting the Dead Duke and his manifold associates. You’ll be immersed in a colorful and dramatic slice of Victorian and Edwardian life, and learn about an example of media frenzy that rivals any to be found in our own times (whole companies were created for the purpose of floating shares to speculate on the outcome of the case). You’ll gain an understanding of historical legal issues that are a bit out of the common, like when it was acceptable to open a grave, and peek into the early days of our criminal justice system. You’ll be grateful for the author’s scrupulous research that turned up important elements overlooked for many years, putting together a puzzle left unsolved by history. And you’ll be tantalized by the still-unknown motive that sparked the whole spectacle. As it delves into the mysteries of the human mind and heart, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse gives a fascinating window into an era that in many ways is not so far from our own.
Read for the RIP X challenge hosted by the Estella Society